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Kristy Leissle: lecturer and chocolate expert

Kristy Leissle: lecturer and chocolate expert
12 Mar
Kristy Leissle is a scholar of the global cocoa and chocolate industries. She is a lecturer at the University of Washington Bothell, where she teaches Global Studies. Her new book, Cocoa, is out now

I think my grandpa was the earliest person in my life to inspire my love of chocolate because he fed it to me regularly. I don’t remember any time in my life when I didn’t love chocolate more than anything else. It just seems like something that’s always been in me. I have distinct memories of the boardwalk on Jersey Shore where my cousins persuaded me to get an orange flavoured ice-cream and I felt this profound – disappointment is almost not strong enough – but I remember it, so chocolate has always been there. 

When I was first starting out as an academic for my PhD, I never would have pitched chocolate as my idea. I entered into it at a moment where we were just at a point when you could study it without people raising an eyebrow at you. Now it’s considered very fashionable to study foods. Chocolate itself is never-ending in what you can learn about the world, it’s taken me down so many roads that I never imagined I would go, as well as different intellectual pathways. It’s hard for me to think of another food,
even coffee, that would have allowed me to do the work I’ve done.

Even though I’ve just written a book called Cocoa, most of my engagement is with chocolate, which is a different thing entirely. Cocoa is the raw material that we use to make chocolate, it’s the seed of the tree theobroma cacao. From my perspective I may have a set of ideas, priorities and desires for this industry, and they might not be the ones a farmer would share. A woman growing cocoa in Ghana might have a totally different set of ideas from a man growing cocoa in Costa Rica. For me if there’s one thing I really hope people take away from this book it’s that there’s always something more to learn, there’s always another perspective that’s just as valid and important.

Fair trade has done a tremendous amount, here at the consumer end, to help people understand that a chocolate bar is not a guilt-free pleasure, that there’s injustice at every step until a bar reaches your hand. It can have a really powerful effect in terms of the way farmers think about themselves and their capacity to organise. It requires farmers to communicate with each other as a collective, rather than as individuals, and to me that’s one of the most important aspects of the label. 

1997 Gained an MSt in Women's Studies at the University of Oxford
2000 Worked with the US Peace Corps teaching English in Benin, West Africa
2001-2008 Gained a PhD in Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington
2008 Began lecturing at University of Washington
2009 Became 'Dean of Beans' at the Theo Chocolate Academy
2010-2013 Was Education Director for the NW Chocolate Festival

What I’ve seen as a more powerful and impactful use of fair trade money is when it’s invested back into communities. Maybe that means an ambulance or water pump, but whatever it means, it allows them to make decisions that can have bigger ripple effects than just giving farmers more money.

In West Africa alone there are two million farmers spread across this vast region. It takes me at least a day usually to get to one village, how do you impact people on this scale? It’s not realistic, so you do what you can. It’s logistically impossible to touch everybody’s lives, whereas here it’s not an unachievable goal to say ‘I want every single chocolate consumer to have at least heard of fair trade.’ We could do that, we might have done it already. Someone once said to me, ‘better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness’ and if that’s what fair trade has done, then that is a tremendous thing.

The story I probably carry with me the most is from 2013 when I was in Ghana with another researcher, Lauren McCarthy. The research Lauren was using with the farmers required them to draw a tree that represents their households. One of the women in Lauren’s group asked, could she still do the exercise if she’d never used a pen. My world is words, my small candle that I light in this industry is writing that I hope educates people, it’s everything I do, and to confront the reality that this woman had never used a pen was such a stark contrast.

Collectively we all need something to inspire us. We elevate ourselves as a society when we take these pursuits, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s chocolate or something else. We can take anything in the world and do our own ethical explorations there. For me those explorations have intertwined with my journey in chocolate. If I think about this book and how I hope people use it, obviously I hope people learn something, but I hope it’s part of someone’s journey. 

This was published in the March 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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